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Unfree Labour - HIS00108H

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  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Patrick Clibbens
  • Credit value: 40 credits
  • Credit level: H
  • Academic year of delivery: 2021-22

Module summary

Unfree labour, ranging from apprenticeship and convict labour to serfdom and slavery, has been common across time and place. Proceeding in a rough chronological order, this module explores some of the main types of unfree labour in a variety of geographical and temporal settings, including ancient Greece, the post-emancipation USA, imperial Russia, and present-day Britain. It will not only test the thesis that capitalist economic expansion led to the disappearance of unfree labour but also evaluate the distinctive characteristics of unfree labour. In particular, the seminars will address such issues as: the legality or illegality of unfree labour; the relationship between the unfree labourer and his employer; the languages of unfree and free labour; the responses to unfree labour, including international treaties and resistance by unfree labourers; visual and textual representations of unfree labour; and gender differences and labour experiences. But the seminars will also pose more general questions about unfree labour. Why did certain societies prefer unfree to free labour? What is the link between capitalism and unfree labour? And how useful is the distinction between unfree labour and free labour?

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Autumn Term 2021-22 to Spring Term 2021-22

Module aims

The aims of this module are:

  • To introduce students to the practice of comparative history;
  • To enable students to acquire skills and understanding of that practice by studying a particular topic or theme; and
  • To enable students to reflect on the possibilities and difficulties involved in comparative history

Module learning outcomes

Students who complete this module successfully will:

  • Grasp the key approaches and challenges involved in comparative history;
  • Understand a range of aspects of the topic or theme which they have studied;
  • Be able to use and evaluate comparative approaches to that topic or theme; and
  • Have learned to discuss and write about comparative history
  • Have developed skills in group work

Module content

Teaching Programme:
Students will attend a 1-hour briefing in week 1 of the autumn term, and a 3-hour seminar in weeks 2-5 and 7-9 of the autumn term and weeks 2-5 and 7-10 of the spring term. Both the autumn and spring terms include a reading week for final year students and so there will be no teaching in week 6. Students prepare for and participate in fifteen three-hour seminars.

Seminar topics are subject to variation, but are likely to include the following:

  1. Studying Unfree Labour: Definitions and Debates
  2. Ancient and classical slavery
  3. Colonial indentured Servitude
  4. New World Slavery
  5. Serfdom
  6. Emancipation
  7. Conscription
  8. Bonded Labour
  9. Tenant Labour
  10. Convict Labour
  11. Labour Camps
  12. Transnational Migrant Labour
  13. Sex trafficking
  14. Unfree labour imagined (film/fiction/art)
  15. The Unfree and Free Labour Distinction: Method of Analysis or Paralysis?


Task Length % of module mark
N/A 33
Not-online take-home exam (1 day)
24-Hour Open Exam
N/A 67

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

For procedural work, the students will make group presentations towards the end of the autumn term. In addition, they may choose to submit an optional 2,000 word formative essay between weeks 7-9 of the autumn term. Essays should not be submitted in the same week as group project presentations are scheduled.

For summative assessment students will complete a 4,000-word group project due in week 6 of the spring term -- this will account for 33% of the final mark. They will then also take a 2,000-word 24-hour open exam during the common assessment period in the summer term, usually released at 11:00 on day 1 and submitted at 11:00 on day 2. The open exam will be worth 67% of the final mark.


Task Length % of module mark
N/A 33
Not-online take-home exam (1 day)
24-Hour Open Exam
N/A 67

Module feedback

Following their formative assessment task, students will receive feedback that will include comments and a mark. If this takes the form of live feedback in class it will be supported by a written comment sheet.

All students are encouraged, if they wish, to discuss the feedback on their procedural work during their tutor’s student hours. For more information, see the Statement on Feedback.

For the summative assessment task, students will receive their provisional mark and written feedback within 20 working days of the submission. The tutor will then be available during student hours for follow-up guidance if required. For more information, see the Statement of Assessment.

Indicative reading

For term time reading, please refer to the module VLE site. Before the course starts, we encourage you to look at the following items of preliminary reading:

Julia O’Connell Davidson, Modern Slavery: The Margins of Freedom (2015).

Joel Quirk, The Anti-Slavery Project : From the Slave Trade to Human Trafficking : From the Slave Trade to Human Trafficking (2011)

Robert E. Wright, The poverty of slavery: how unfree labour pollutes the economy (2017).

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.